SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) — A groundbreaking force in music since she was a teenager, rock icon Joan Jett and her band the Blackhearts bring their anthemic hits to Stern Grove Sunday afternoon.
Relocating to the Los Angeles suburb of West Covina with her family after she’d gotten her first guitar at age 13, Joan Larkin would start going by the more rock and roll stage name of Joan Jett when her parents divorced. Diving into the LA rock scene by frequenting popular DJ Rodney Bingenheimer’s English Disco on Sunset Boulevard, Jett developed a love for British glam rock — including acts like David Bowie, T. Rex, Slade and the Sweet — that was a staple of the club.READ MORE: French Bulldog Stolen at Gunpoint During Castro Valley Armed Robbery
As Jett began searching for like-minded collaborators to start a group, producer and notorious LA figure Kim Fowley connected the young guitarist and songwriter with drummer Sandy West in 1975 and the two teens founded the all-female proto-punk band Runaways.
The band began as a trio with early member Micki Steele (aka Michael Steele, who would play in the Bangles in the ’80s) on bass and vocals, but eventually settled on a five-piece line-up with bleach-blonde bombshell singer Cherie Currie, guitarist Lita Ford and bassist Jackie Fox. Thanks to manager Fowley’s connections and the powerhouse songs he and Jett co-wrote, the band scored a deal with Mercury Records and released its eponymous debut in 1976.
Kicked off by “Cherry Bomb” — one of the great odes to teen rebellion ever recorded — the album tried to put the spotlight on Currie (she was featured on the cover), but it was Jett who truly drove the band with her guitar riffs and songwriting skills. Plus, she sang lead or co-lead on half of the album’s ten tracks.
The album was a minor commercial success and garnered some positive reviews at the time, but found a much wider audience overseas in Japan thanks to “Cherry Bomb.” The band’s follow up Queens of Noise in 1977 did even better domestically as the Runaways toured in support of acts including Rush and Blondie.
But internal friction and issues with Fowley led to the departure of Fox and Currie before the end of the year, though not before the group recorded the album Live in Japan that would become a coveted import in the U.S. and England. Jett took over lead vocals full time on the next two albums that again saw some success in Asia and Europe, but by 1979 the band was broken up.
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Jett would relocate to London to try to start her solo career, recording an early version of the Arrows cover “I Love Rock ‘n Roll” with former Sex Pistols Paul Cook and Steve Jones before teaming with New York producer and songwriter Kenny Laguna. He would finance the recording of Jett’s first album, which they would self-release on their own Blackheart Records label after it was rejected by nearly two dozen U.S. labels.
With its mix of punchy, punky originals (“Bad Reputation,” “Let Me Go”) and cover tunes (“You Don’t Own Me,” “Shout,” “Wooly Bully” and a pair of Gary Glitter tracks), the record helped establish Jett’s pop-meets-glam sound as a solo artist, paving the way for the blockbuster success of her follow-up album, I Love Rock ‘n Roll and the title single that would push the album to multi-platinum sales.
Though she would never match that level of commercial success on later albums, Jett would cultivate a loyal audience through the ’80s into the ’90s, touring relentlessly and regularly putting out new music. The latter decade found her being embraced by a new generation of “riot grrls” as a pioneering icon.
Jett would also collaborate with younger musicians she influenced, producing an album for Bikini Kill, writing songs with the likes of Babes in Toyland’s Kat Bjelland, L7’s Donita Sparks and Bikini Kill’s Kathleen Hanna. She also teamed with members of the Gits after the tragic slaying of Seattle singer Mia Zapata, performing under the name Evil Stig (Gits Live spelled backwards) for a series of benefit concerts and an album.
While Jett made her acting debut alongside Michael J. Fox in 1987 for the Paul Schrader drama Light of Day, decades later she returned to film, executive producing the 2010 biopic on the Runaways and was the subject of the 2018 documentary Bad Reputation.
For this afternoon show as part of the Stern Grove Festival, Joan Jett and the Blackhearts will be appearing on their own with no opening act, though local musician Allyson Baker (leader of her own post-punk band Dirty Ghosts, who also plays with Kelley Stoltz and the Red Room Orchestra) will spin a selection of tunes before the main event.MORE NEWS: Local Thrash-Metal Heroes Death Angel Headline Great American
Stern Grove Festival: Joan Jett and the Blackhearts
Sunday, Aug. 1, 2 p.m. Free (reservations required; information here)